An old saying goes along the lines, “There are two sure things in life – death and taxes”, but there’s no doubt that conflict could just as easily be a third. The question is not so much how do we eliminate conflict, but more, how can we reduce conflict and then handle it better?
Conflict has been an ever present part of the human experience. Whether it is conflict between nations, tribes, organisations, families, or couples, conflict, to some degree, has always been there.
In our optical context, conflict can occur in any number of ways, including: ]
- Between business partners
- Between management and staff
- Between work colleagues And these all require a specific approach.
But for this article, we will focus on conflict between optical staff and the customer/ client/patient.
Conflict between optical staff and the customer/ client/patient usually involves an unhappy or disgruntled customer
WHY BE CONCERNED?
Conflict between optical staff and the customer/client/patient usually involves an unhappy or disgruntled customer. There are huge numbers of studies and reports that consistently warn us that these unhappy customers can bring our practices all sorts of grief. The figures may vary a little, but generally these reports tell us:
- The happy customer will relate their experiences to perhaps four to six other people, while the unhappy customer will do so to nine to 15 people (and sometimes up to 20). Wow – the disgruntled customer certainly appears to be a highly motivated ambassador for their unsatisfactory experience!
- The probability of selling to an existing customer could be 60 – 70 per cent while selling to a new customer is much less at 5 – 20 per cent.
- 95 per cent of unhappy customers never register their complaints, but 91 per cent of them will leave and never come back.
It is statistics like these that prompted Bill Gates to utter those famous words “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning”.
Therefore, we need to be concerned about how we can win over the unhappy customer, and this often starts with addressing any initial conflict in a controlled, thoughtful, and positive manner.
Let’s consider some of the most common triggers that can spark a conflict with our customers, and I expect you will be able to relate to many of these. It could be:
- The vision through the new spectacles is poor
- The spectacles are broken (perhaps they were found that way in the case?)
- The spectacles are uncomfortable to wear
- The spectacles were not completed on time
- The spectacles were missing a coating or tint.
The experienced practitioner will have encountered many of these issues and more, sometimes many times. Fortunately, that experience equips us to handle the next encounter with even more insight and skill.
Next let’s consider the most common warning signs of an impending conflict with an approaching customer. If you ever see these signs, then prepare for action. The customer may:
- Approach in a stomping fashion
- Hold a surly expression with pursed lips
- Have flushed facial features
- Exhibit stiff or jerky movements
- Speak in a high pitched and raised voice
- Drop the spectacles onto the counter or even throw them.
These are the tell-tale signs that conflict with the customer is about to commence. As a practitioner you need to recognise these signs early to ensure all responses are appropriate from the outset in order to minimise the conflict and effect a preferable outcome.
SEVEN STEPS TO CONFLICT RESOLUTION
- Remain Calm – Try Not to Take the Disagreement Personally
This is easier said than done, but will help enormously. Remember, the customer’s dissatisfaction is actually towards the practice, even if it is poorly directed, and the customer may well have a very good reason for being displeased. The customer may well be experiencing significant stress in other areas of their life which is impacting them. It can help to view the conflict as a challenge that you can overcome by employing your outstanding people skills. The challenge is to win this person over, deliver outstanding service under stressful circumstances, and to produce good outcomes rather than an unhappy ambassador of not so good will.
- Move to a Quiet Area
This can be challenging if your work area is limited, but if possible it is advisable to move the customer to a quieter area, away from others. We certainly don’t want our other customers to hear or see what may be unfolding, and we can always imply to our unhappy customer that a quieter area will allow for less distraction.
- Listen and Express Sympathy
This could well be the most important point in this article. When listening to the customer’s concerns, we absolutely must ‘zip it’. Allow the customer to fully express their concerns and ensure they feel they have been heard. No interjecting, no defending, no contradicting, and certainly no counter attacking at this crucial stage. The only acceptable utterances at this time are the usual quiet, softly spoken “oh dear”, “that’s no good”, or “I understand”, which will help to convey to the customer your genuine concern. The customer will usually appreciate this opportunity to express their concerns and you will often notice them relaxing or calming down as they detail their issue.
However, it would be appropriate at this point to include what is not acceptable. The customer may be upset and has every right to expect to be heard, but if their behaviour includes a raised voice, swearing, aggressive gestures, threatening, physical contact, or throwing objects, then the situation has now advanced from a normal retail interaction to an unacceptable and potentially dangerous matter. At this point the staff member should terminate the interaction, ask the customer to leave immediately, and warn that should they refuse to leave, the police will be called. And of course, the police should be called without delay should the customer refuse to leave. The personal safety of our staff, physically and emotionally, should always be the priority. Thankfully, we operate in an industry where these upsetting scenarios are few and far between.
- Ask Polite Questions
Now is the time to respond. Thoughtful and polite questioning can be employed to check understanding and thoroughly investigate the issues, while you sift through your mind to identify possible solutions that could be recommended.
- Recommend Solutions
The goal here is to look for the ‘win/win’ solution if at all possible. The reality is, while we love a ‘win/win’, it’s not always achievable, but remember the main goal here is to win the customer over and to avert that dreaded bad word of mouth. Offer your solution, which may include new lenses, a replacement frame, a ‘cost price’ service or item, or even a refund, and be sure to take careful notes and record the details of this interaction and outcome.
Now about that old saying “the customer is always right”. I’m not sure who came up with this doozy, because we all know that often the customer can be just plain wrong.
However, the customer is the customer, which means they are always important to us. They deserve to be treated with all care and respect, they are the source and reason for our trade and they hold the power of both good and bad word of mouth. Remember, when we came into this industry we knew full well that we would be dealing with lots of customers with individual needs, so therefore the onus is on us to provide them with outstanding service and skill.
- Carry Out the Solution
Whatever the recommended solution, it now needs to be implemented in a timely fashion, and needs to be monitored. How often have you found that Murphy’s Law, which states, “if it can go wrong, it will”, comes into play at this point? The last thing we need at this stage is for another unexpected hitch to occur. Therefore, we must monitor the situation carefully, and be ready to act if anything appears as though it might impede our solution, until it has been fully carried out.
7. Follow Up
Our last step is to follow up. This step is generally highly recommended, but again needs to be handled sensitively. If the solution has been successful, then this follow up step can be the icing on a fabulous cake, which is always the goal. But sometimes, in the real world, the solution has not always hit the mark and the follow up may even re-start the conflict. However, this of course should be viewed as another precious opportunity to connect with a customer of ours who, for whatever reason, is less than happy, to learn from their experience, and to afford us another chance to win them over.
James Gibbins is a director and senior trainer at the Australasian College of Optical Dispensing, which delivers quality training and continual professional development to meet the growing needs of the optical dispensing industry.